The first time I called the national breastfeeding hotline, it was 5am. A voice recording advised that the helpline was run by volunteers so if I could wait until business hours, I should try again later.
I hung up. Was it urgent that my nipple was cracked and bleeding? Was it urgent that my infant daughter was sobbing with hunger? Was it urgent that I felt like I was failing as a mother?
I sat in the dark, cried and then called back. It was indeed urgent.
This was one of the many episodes of loneliness and frustration during my breastfeeding journey. When I became a first time mum last year, I wanted to try breastfeeding as it was so highly recommended by health authorities nationally and around the world.
Breastfeeding, according to our Department of Health provides babies with “the best start in life” and is a “key contributor” to infant and maternal health. The department points to lower incidences of infections, diseases, illnesses and allergies in breastfed babies, as well as health benefits for mums including reduced risks of some cancers in later life.
But for something that is so important as lauded by our government, I was thrown by the lack of affordable, timely and practical support for new mums.
I ran into breastfeeding woes when my baby was three weeks old. I was desperate for sleep, overwhelmed with responsibility and couldn’t sit without pain thanks to childbirth.
Then, I got a blocked duct in my left breast which later turned into mastitis. With that, my daughter couldn’t latch on. My breast burned with infection, my nipple throbbed with pain. I was in tears. And my baby was hungry. I needed some help.
My Chinese mother did not breastfeed. The norm in 1980s Hong Kong (when and where I was born) was for mums to return to work, commonly six weeks after birth
I called the nurses at my local maternal and child health centre but they couldn’t fit me in for a week. Newborns feed every 1.5 to three hours, around the clock, so waiting a week was unhelpful. The nurse knew that too. She apologised and referred me to the hospital.
I called the hospital and left a voicemail. I had already used my one free lactation consultation post birth (when breastfeeding was going relatively well). I wasn’t convinced they would call me back any time soon. Alas, they never did.
Next, I called the national breastfeeding helpline. The counsellor was lovely but couldn’t provide more than cheerleading. She couldn’t offer practical support. Ditto family and friends.
My Chinese mother did not breastfeed. The norm in 1980s Hong Kong (when and where I was born) was for mums to return to work, commonly six weeks after birth.
Friends with newborns were learning to breastfeed themselves. In any case, in our western culture, it was not ok to observe and take notes.
I sunk $200 on a private lactation consultation of which neither Medicare nor my private health insurance covered
So this left me with a choice to stop or to seek private help. In many ways, I am lucky. I can afford the help.
I sunk $200 on a private lactation consultation of which neither Medicare nor my private health insurance covered. I also spent close to $450 on ultrasound treatments to unclog multiple blocked ducts. My private health insurance covered about a quarter. These sessions ate into my annual limit for physio, which meant there was little left for the pelvic floor rehab I needed further down the track.
In Australia, 96 per cent of babies are breastfed at birth but only 15 per cent are exclusively breastfed at five months, that is less than the six months of exclusive breastfeeding as recommended by the World’s Health Organisation and Australia’s infant feeding guidelines.
The government has announced a $10 million breastfeeding strategy to lift breastfeeding rates in Australia. The strategy presents a range of initiatives including community education and awareness, health professional education and training, trialling a national milk bank and improving the workplace for breastfeeding mothers (such as lactation breaks and better breastfeeding spaces).
All of this is promising. But by far, the most attractive to me is universal breastfeeding education and support. I hope the government is serious about improving breastfeeding rates and that it funds the services required so that desperate mothers trying to feed their baby are not turned away.
Breastfeeding can be a wonderful and empowering experience with public health benefits. If a mum wants to breastfeed, she should be supported to do so with free, timely and practical care.
World Breastfeeding Week 2019 runs from August 1 to August 7.